The Strength of Family, The Kindness of Friends

The Strength of Family, The Kindness of Friends

The morning after the tornado came through, we were all a little dull from lack of sleep and that hollow feeling you get after a trauma. Brandon left early for work. Text messages rolled in from friends asking how they could help.

Foggy-brained and feeling lost without Brandon, I didn't know how to answer. I'd never cleaned up after a storm. Not a literal one, anyway. And so I thanked them and told them we were okay. Even if it wasn't true at the moment, it would be in a few days.

The Island: The Return

My first trip to Little Gasparilla Island was in 2010. We went with one of my besties, Danielle Dorey, who I'd met during my Frontliners internship the summer of 2003.

 Baby faces.

Micah was a baby, and I was a happily married stay-at-home mom/part-time private piano and voice teacher. And I'd just scored a lead role in the community theater's Fall musical-comedy. Life was pretty good. And the trip? A-maz-ing. I'd fallen in love with that little slip of sandy earth and planned to return as soon as I could.

What I didn't realize then was the bit of heaven we'd enjoyed there was the calm before the storm. There was crazy theater drama for the next two months. (Not all the good kind.) A miscarriage. A major onslaught against my health in January 2011 followed by a difficult pregnancy and a semi-traumatic labor and delivery.

My health continued to deteriorate, but I never let go of the dream of returning. I felt God had given it as a promise to go with my healing. I would say to Brandon, "When I get well, we're going back, you know."

And when I was lying on what could've been my death bed, he'd say, "Don't forget. When you get well, we're going back to the island." To remind me I couldn't die yet. We had plans.

When my healing began, we mentioned a return trip, but as time came to make preparations I realized we were too short on cash to press the issue. Besides, I was going to Brazil in September.

But my Superman is one sly guy and he's earned his nickname many times over.

As we drove home from the Ozarks on my birthday, my phone rang. It was Danielle. Because it was my birthday, I expected nothing more than a wish. Which I received. Then she said, "Brandon, God and I have a surprise for you."

My thought bubble: Brandon...God...Danielle...can't be a baby...hmmm....

"How would you like to come down to the island next month?"

After a momentary lapse of cognition, I flipped.

I laughed. I cried. I bounced up and down in my seat. I couldn't believe it. And yet I could. Brandon has always been too good to me.

I sneaked a glance at him. Tears shimmered in his eyes. Softy. He knew what this meant to me.

I thanked Danielle. I thanked B. I thanked God. I was so stoked. Only a few days before I'd asked Sara, "If we could go anywhere in the world together, where would you want to go?"

"Da beach," she'd said with a grin. She'd never been and it had been so long since our last beach trip, Micah didn't remember. They were so excited when I told them.

Brandon explained we would drive to Georgia first to see our friends James and Erica Kordsmeier, then drive down to Tampa and leave from there for the island with the Doreys. We'd be gone 11 days.

The drive to Georgia was smooth and pleasant. God placed two people in my path to pray for along the way, which was fun. Our time with the Kordsmeiers was too short but very sweet.

Then came our reunion with the Doreys. It had been six years since I'd seen my friend face to face and yet--because of phone calls, texts, Facebook and the goodness of God--it was as if no time had passed. Except for the three extra kiddos, dark circles under our eyes and a few gray hairs. But whatevs.

The next day, we made our way south along Florida's west coast. I was antsy to get to the island, but also a bit fearful. Would it be as incredible as I remembered? Or had I blown a nice experience out of proportion in my mind?

I stepped out of the truck and smelled bay water. A hot breeze ruffled my unruly hair. I smiled and forgot all fear of disappointment.

Samantha, Danielle's sister gave some of us a boat ride from the marina to the island.

Weston and Sara ready to go "motor speed."

Before I knew it, we were there. And yes--the magic I remembered still hovered over the island. Not quite ripe sea grapes and coconuts graced the trees. Birds called out to one another. A dog barked in the distance. The kids played in the sand and I enjoyed the quiet rush of the breeze through the foliage while we waited for the luggage to be unloaded onto the golf cart.

Then it was a race to get to the beach.

One of the things I love about Little Gasparilla is the low population. There are no condominiums. Just beach houses. There's no fighting for chair space. You don't have to watch your stuff. You can leave it out all day if you want. No one will bother it. And your kids are easy to spot. Behold...

The kids enjoyed the beach as much as they thought they would. They enjoyed each other more than I thought they would.

Here we have a Weston...the cutest fish you'll ever meet.

FYI: You can't keep this 4-year-old out of the water. 

Micah was afraid of the water, but enjoyed the beach. 

I taught Sara to body board...kind of. 

 Instead of a vanilla latte made by Kurt Pendergrass, Kurt Pendergrass taught me to make my own. Turns out, I'm not a bad barista.

Kurt also took B fishing again...

and on our first evening, took us all out on a dolphin cruise.

The kids enjoyed the local wildlife. 

One morning, I woke early to pray and enjoy the sunrise, which was pretty glorious. The sunsets were as spectacular as I remembered.

 Check out that green ray!

But nothing could beat the company.

This trip to the island was a lot more work than the last. That's what happens when you add three littles to the mix. Especially when the party includes a high-adventure, adrenaline junkie, perpetually ravenous two year old. 

Meet Titus. Chances are, he's "hungee." 

Kudos to Danielle and Ryan who somehow keep him fed.

I didn't have a lot of alone time with Jesus while we were gone, but the constant prayer of my heart was, "Thank you...thank you...thank you...thank you..."

I was overwhelmed by generosity. Of my husband, who sacrificed vacation days usually set aside for hunting. By my friends who offered us a free place to stay and great company. Of the Pendergrasses and Danielle's sister, Samantha, who came down both Sunday and Wednesday to make coming and going fun, easy and inexpensive. Of the Lord. 

Wow...just wow. 

I'd done nothing to deserve such a gift. Yet it was freely given. Grace, grace...marvelous grace. 

Grace was the golden thread running through every detail. From the ability to even go to the hospitality of friends. Down even to the storm patterns. Each day, storms threatened to come down upon us, but danced around instead. On the day we left, all the Floridians agreed, we'd get wet on the boat ride back to shore. But no. The clouds parted. We sat on damp towels and enjoyed the cool air in our faces...

...and on the drive back to Tampa, a reminder that God always...always...keeps His promises.

See You in Sao Paulo, Part 1

In less than three months, I'll put this bad boy to good use. On September 22, 2016, I fly to Sao Paulo, Brazil. The whole thing is still so crazy to me. How does a girl go from being a shut-in with an incurable disease to flying out of the country to tell people about the goodness of God in less than a year?

If you've been reading a while, you know part of the story. Today, I want to share the rest of it because it's a story worth telling. But it'll take more than one post.

"To love is to be vulnerable..." C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves

I can't talk about Brazil without first talking about my friend, Erica Weller.

I'll begin by saying I did not plan on this friendship.

Friendship is hard for me. I learn to love people and they leave. Three of my best friends live out of state. And after Jenny...well...I wasn't really looking to let someone new get that close again. But God has a way of obliterating our attempts at self-protection and giving us something better.

Erica was instrumental in the story of my healing. The first time I met her (November 8, 2015) God gave her a very personal word for me through the story of the woman with the bleeding issue.

I'll never forget how nervous she was. She wiped sweaty palms on her jeans, took a deep breath, and told me I had that woman's faith--at a time I felt too tired to have that woman's faith or anyone else's--and prophesied that I would be healed "at the molecular level."

Something happens when someone speaks a word given to them by the Holy Spirit and the person the word is for receives it.

A few weeks later during my prayer session, Erica witnessed the moment she had prophesied.

"God places the lonely in families; he sets the prisoners free and gives them joy." Psalm 68:6


I fell hard and fast for the new family that helped rescue me and took me in. Each person has a special, unique place in my heart and I can't talk about how much I love them without getting weepy, so mostly I don't. I just love them. But there was a locked up room inside of me I never intended to give anyone access to again. Not even them.

And like an idiot, I invited Erica out for coffee. I planned for a 1-2 hour visit. We were there 4 hours.

When it was past time to leave, she suddenly looked as nervous as she had the night we met. "You know how you said you wish you could see blind and deaf people healed and people raised from the dead and all that?"

I nodded. My healing had taught me the true meaning of the word "impossible" is "God's playground," and I was ready to see more of it.

"Why don't you come on a mission trip to Brazil with me where that kind of stuff happens every night?"

I nearly fell out of my chair. At once, I was slammed with intense longing, a long list of reasons it would never work out and a gentle electric pulse which washed over my skin as if to say, "Listen. Take her seriously. This is important."

The trip would last two weeks and would cost $3,400. Our group would help support us, but couldn't bear the full financial burden of us both. 

I promised to think and pray about it, but warned her that I'm not fond of leaving my children, that money was an issue and Brandon wasn't likely to go for it. And by "not likely to go for it" I meant "no way would he go for it."

I didn't breathe a word to him when I arrived home that night. I'd been married long enough to know timing was important. 

That time my friends tried to give my trip away...

The next night, Brandon attended the Siegmunds' group with me. Tim, Erica's dad, asked me about the trip. I told him to keep his mouth shut because I hadn't talked to B. Then during the meeting he proceeds to offer an open invitation to "any young person" who would like to go. Dude was trying to give my trip away before I'd even had a chance to mention it to my husband!!!


If that weren't enough, he announces it again after worship while we were all standing in the kitchen grazing. Then Bruce pipes up and tries to give my trip to one of the college guys who comes sometimes. 


While said college guy would be a wonderful choice, it was my trip. (Never mind that I had no logical reason to feel so territorial.)

I waited for Brandon to step out of the room and said under my breath--just loud enough for the people standing closest to me to hear--"I'm going to Brazil."

I had no idea how it would work out or even whether or not I really wanted to go, but somehow I knew what I'd said was true.

To be continued...

Erica and I will be in Sao Paulo, Brazil September 22-October 4, 2016 with a team led by Randy Clark through his organization, Global Awakening. We invite you to partner with us financially in the mission to bring the Good News to all the world. Please make all checks payable to ChristSource Ministries, write "Brazil Mission Trip" in the memo, and mail to 301 E. Alabama Ave. Ruston, LA 71270 by July 14. ChristSource is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Your donation is tax-deductible. If you are unable to support us financially, please partner with us through prayer. Thank you!

On Initiative, The Velvet Hammer, and What I Want

Confession chased the heels of awakening.

"I feel...kinda...really...lonely."

Mom gave me that look. The dimple pronounced itself. The corner of her mouth turned up. And those baby blues flashed her thoughts like a neon sign--"Finally, I can get this off my chest."


Mom is what a writing friend of mine calls a "velvet hammer."

Exhibit A: The Velvet Hammer:
Pounding out hard truths in the softest ways...
(Until she's annoyed, in which out.)

"Well, you've been in isolation--writing your book--for months. You haven't had time for people." Her eyes darted to mine. "Which is fine. It's the way it had to be. But now your book is finished, and you're left with the isolation."

Translation: You shut everyone out for months, including me. It's your own fault. Not that I blame you. Your book is important. But you made the bed you woke up in. Just sayin...

See what I mean? WHAM! With a side of sugar.

So I asked her what to do about it because apparently, I'd forgotten how to relate to people who aren't characters I created.

Her reply was both simple and profound --"Tell people what you want."

Initiative. It's hard, folks, but somebody has to take it. 

There are several reasons we don't. Probably more than I've listed here.

We're busy. Many people my age are parents of small children. That automatically makes a person busy. Others have a job. Some have many jobs. Busy-ness can fry the brain and zap the energy until we fall into a social coma. This is why my long distance pals and I go months without talking. And these are my best friends!

We're shy. We introverts are comfortable enough with our friends. Within our own circles, we may be the life of the party. But throw us into a room full of strangers, and we speak to no one. Because we are overwhelmed by all the bodies and the stimuli, and small talk creeps us out.

We're self-consumed. I'm not talking about people who can only talk about themselves here. I'm talking about the ones who just lost a job or found out their mother has cancer or whose kid is self-destructing. Everyone has their own stuff. When we're preoccupied like that, it's difficult to even see outside of ourselves, much less connect with another person.

We lack confidence. Connection is risky. Will they like me? Accept me? Hate my guts and trample my heart?

And then there are people who are just downright intimidating. We all know a few.

For one reason or another, I've always been one of those people.

Until a few years ago, people often assumed I was a goody-goody, know-it-all, pretty-girl snob they couldn't relate to. Don't believe me? Here are a few things real people have actually said to me. In earnest:

"They hate you because you're a goody two-shoes."
"I'm insanely jealous of you! You always know what you want out of life, and you're able to make it happen."
"Gah--you're so pretty. I hate you."
"Before I met you, I thought you were one of those weirdo Bible-thumpers and that we could never be friends."
"I thought you were a snob."

(I was always bewildered and devastated by these comments, but I think I understand them better now. As a defense mechanism, people will reject you before you have a chance to reject them. In the end, we're all after the same thing--acceptance--and we're scared to death it will be denied. This is why we need Jesus. In Him, we are accepted by God. God's perfect love casts out fear, and when we're unafraid, we can withstand the risk of rejection because there will always be One to accept us.)

I'm not sure how I'm perceived now. People don't feel as free to comment as they did before. But here are my best guesses:

  • A walking reminder that life can go terribly wrong. 
  • A hypochondriac.
  • A drama queen.
  • FRAGILE. Do Not Touch.

I grant the mask is intimidating...

almost as intimidating as Brandon's bodyguard face.

Did you know it's every bit as intimidating to realize people are intimidated by you as it is to feel intimidated by someone else?

It all goes back to fear of rejection.

If I want community, I have to work harder at it than a normal person. 

I don't have a job. I don't "get out." I don't make it to church that often. And when I do, how much community can I really have when I bee-bop late into a crowded room, sit in an isolated corner, and duck out before the fragrant masses arrive for the next service? 

With these hurdles, I'm not allowed to be too busy, shy, self-consumed, or intimidated. Whether I like it or not, I have to initiate relationships. 

So here's what I want:

  • I want you to approach me. Unless you bathed in perfume, peanut butter, or a pool of rubber bands. In that case, try again later.
  • I want you to stop feeling intimidated by my struggles. Feel free to share your own. My struggles bore me. Let's talk about you!
  • I want you to call me, text me, and invite yourself over for tea. 
  • I want your kids in my house. Bring them with you.
  • I want you to accept my invitations. I won't invite you if I'm not sincere.
  • I want to feel happily exhausted at the end of a good visit. 
  • I want a hodgepodge of friends and family to come over, sing hymns, and have communion with me. I'll provide the rice crackers and hibiscus tea.
  • I want to feed people.
  • I want you to ask favors of me. Trust me to say "no" if I can't say "yes."
  • I want more velvet hammers in my life. 

Maybe I'm not the only one...

It occurs to me that maybe I'm not the only one who has room to improve in the realm of relationships. Maybe we could all stand to be a bit braver, more selfless, more intentional, and harder to offend. Maybe we should all attempt a little warmth and vulnerability so people aren't so intimidated to approach us.

Maybe we could all stand to take a little initiative with the people in our lives. Just sayin...
 (I learned to hammer from the best.)

Love in the Little Things

Love is written in both sweeping gestures and humble details. We read it in atoning blood and flowering rose, in declarations of lifelong commitment and daily kisses. We need the weight of the former, and repetition of the latter to fill us up and make us strong. In love, the little things matter--

like "happy food,"

holding hands at the dinner table,

slow walks on hard days,


a freshly plowed field ready to grow nourishing food,


a pile of beloved comfort items offered to a sick mamma,

the sacrifice of a relaxed Easter morning to worship with the church-starved shut-in,

the simple gift of a handkerchief.

As with the steady drip drop of water onto solid rock, these little things leave a lasting impression where love collects into pools. Like the story of that handkerchief.

I remember the day I received it. On September 27, 2011, my Nona had just been diagnosed with breast cancer, which served me a double blow. The realization that the rock and matriarch of our family who never caught a cold had cancer was an impossible shock; the trauma of losing my Grandmommy to breast cancer eight years prior had awoken from slumber. I was six weeks away from giving birth to Sara, and mentally shaming myself for lamenting over Braxton Hicks contractions and sciatic pain when there was cancer in the world. And my dear friend, Ellie Blackburn, had just given birth to her fourth child.

That mild autumn night, I took advantage of Brandon's free evening. I left Micah in his capable hands, and drove the thirty something miles from Farmerville to Lincoln General Hospital in Ruston, Louisiana to meet my friend's tiny new addition. I meant to distract myself from my own troubles by entering into someone else's joy. But that is not what happened. Instead, my friend abandoned her joy to enter into my troubles--much like Someone Else I know.

When we found ourselves alone, she asked me how I was doing, and without meaning to I selfishly poured out my burdened heart at the side of her hospital bed. Weary though she was, she listened intently and passed me a soft, white handkerchief which I thoroughly saturated. A handkerchief is not typically a thing one borrows, but when she told me it had belonged to her grandmother, I offered to return it after a good washing. Ellie told me to keep it.

I used it once or twice after that, but it has mostly lain forgotten in my purse for two and a half years--until I needed it last month when I said goodbye to a dear friend who was stolen away by cancer. Crying into that handkerchief by Jenny's graveside, I was simultaneously far stronger and more broken than I ever could have imagined when I cried at Ellie's bedside--a recipe which yielded many more tears. I needed that little white cloth. It was such a comfort to me even in its smallness. The reminder of Ellie, who now lives hundreds of miles away, earned a smile from me that day. When it was time to set my face right after the service so I could embrace Jenny's family and say my goodbyes, I stuffed it into my coat pocket and forgot about it--

Until I had need of it again a few days later. I didn't need it for me. The kind of crying I was doing following Jenny's death required hand towels. A dainty handkerchief can only hold so much snot. I needed it for someone else--another dear friend who also lives hundreds of miles away. Madonna, a friend from college, was in town for a rare visit. We had a nice--if brief--time together at Jubilee Farm after not having seen one another for over a year. There was a private soul-baring, tear-inducing moment in the car as I drove her to where she was staying. Madonna apologized for getting emotional, which made me grin because it's something I would do--something I did that night in Ellie's hospital room. I told her not to apologize. I was honored that she would and could cry in my presence. I told her I wanted to be a safe place for her. I hope to be a safe place for all my friends. For strangers even. 

And then she asked for a tissue. Drat. I don't carry tissue because I'm allergic to it. I could only offer her fast food napkins my dad had stuffed into my glove compartment several months ago during one of our road trips to Baton Rouge. My handkerchief remained soiled in my coat pocket at home.

As Madonna wiped her eyes with the roughest, least durable paper in existence, I told her the story of my handkerchief--the friend who gave it to me and how it had brought comfort to my sore heart one night in a happy hospital room and one sad, sunny day by my Jenny's grave and how sorry I was I couldn't offer it to her. I made a promise--"The next time this happens, I'll be ready. I'm going to order some handkerchiefs for this very thing."

And I did. I "won" a set of ten pretty hankies on Ebay two days later.

It took some careful work getting the fragrance and stiffness out of them without having a reaction, but I managed. When I was done, I enclosed my favorite of the lot--the one with the embroidered pink flowers pictured here--in a package I mailed to Madonna. Late though it was in getting to her, I hope it brings her some comfort and reminds her that I'm thinking of her and praying for her. I carry the other nine hankies in a plastic bag in my purse, ready to give them away to anyone who has tears to dry and a heart to be heard. 

Opportunities for grand gestures are rare. You get married once, and then you prove your love every day in dying little deaths to give life to another. You birth a child, and then you spend the next umpteen years forgetting yourself as you intentionally observe, notice, and appreciate all the little things that make up the ever-growing human carrying around your DNA. Jesus Christ gave His life for us once, but never stops saving the soul who wants Him. He draws near. He enters in. He keeps count of every toss in our bed, every sigh of our soul, every tear that falls from our eyes--caused by everything from cancer to pregnancy discomforts--and stores them in a bottle (Psalm 56:8). He has accomplished the big things--covenants and coming and death and resurrection--but He never stops wooing us with the small. He is the most observant Lover. There isn't a detail He could miss.

I remember once marveling to my cousin and family photographer, Morgan Tucker, that God seemed to care about and provide for all the details of our family photography sessions. She laughed and sagely responded, "God cares about pictures because we care about pictures."  

It's true, you know. Jesus cares about the little things because we do. He created us to appreciate them, after all. It is in these little things that we learn to ground ourselves in the rich soil of His love so that when big storms come we stay firmly planted. 

This Man inspires me and sets my heart aflame. I want to love like He loves. I want to smell like Him and feel like Him. I want people to think of Him when they are with me. So I will prepare nourishing meals, fold and put away his underwear, read her favorite book for the hundredth time, look into his eyes when he asks his questions, pray for those I cannot otherwise serve, and keep hankies on hand to catch the unexpected tears of strangers and friends. I will ask God to give me joy in the doing so the love hits its mark.

There are no grand gestures here, and I will never love as perfectly as I would like. I will fail, repent, repeat, but I will never stop aiming. For His sake. And the "I love yous" I sing will be soft, humble songs. They won't earn me any applause, which is good. In this the hearers know it's all for them and not at all for me. The goal of real love isn't to impress, but to leave an impression. It is to help a soul feel its value and a spirit catch a foretaste of the infinite love of our Lord. 

The world is more beautiful when we love in the little things like chocolate pudding and handkerchiefs and open ears and hearts. May we love as we are so gloriously loved.  

Happy Birthday To Me--Part 1

Women know how to get the most out of their birthdays. Only men have birthdays. We ladies get a birthday weekend, a birthday week, or (if you really know how to play your cards right) a birthday month. I have decided I don't want to celebrate for an entire month. I think I'll take my birthday week and move right along.

I'm honestly not sure how to describe my 29th celebration. It was bookended by two precious gatherings for my sake, but the days in between were hard. Very hard. However, I think I shall begin my recount with the actual celebration, which was highlighted by getting out of the house, good food and sweet people who love me.

 Sara called me "Mama" for the first time ever at my party on June 1! What a great gift!

 Micah and Samantha Davis both made me cards! They were perfect!
 The man in the corner gave me four dark chocolate bars and a $25 gift card to iTunes.
 One never errs with chocolate and music.
 We all ate up some baby love. Mr. Will Davis is a sweetheart!

Brandon grilled steaks for everyone while I cooked mine safely on Mom's stovetop. I also made my own me-friendly (at the time) birthday cake. Dark chocolate lovers, rejoice! I'm going to share the recipe. Everyone else can skip the next couple of paragraphs:

Dark Chocolate Zucchini Cake

1/2 cup coconut oil
2 cups organic, sprouted rice flour
1/2 cup cocoa powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt
1 cup Grade B organic maple syrup
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 large eggs
2 cups grated zucchini, packed
1 8 oz. organic, dark chocolate bar, chopped

Line the bottom of a 10" springform pan with unbleached parchment paper, and grease the sides with coconut oil. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Combine dry ingredients in a medium sized bowl. Scoop out one cup of mix and set aside. In a separate, larger bowl, cream the coconut oil and maple syrup. Add vanilla and eggs. Keeping the cup of flour mixture set aside, add the bowl of  dry ingredients to the wet, and beat until well combined. Place the 2 cups of zucchini in the bowl the dry ingredients were in, add the cup of flour and the dark chocolate pieces, and toss to coat. Then add the zucchini to the rest of the cake mixture, and stir until just combined. Spread the batter into the springform pan and bake 50-60 minutes.

Dark Chocolate Ganache

1 cup full fat organic coconut milk 
8 oz. unsweetened Baker's chocolate, chopped
maple syrup to taste

While the cake is cooling, chop the Baker's chocolate. Bring the coconut milk to almost boiling, and remove from heat. Place the chopped chocolate into the hot milk, and stir until smooth. Add maple syrup to taste. You will use less for a darker chocolate flavor, and more if you prefer a sweeter frosting. 

I poured my ganache over the cake immediately, and set the entire thing into the fridge to cool. If you don't have a ton of allergies, you may want to garnish the cake with chopped pecans or fresh fruit. Strawberries would have been divine on this cake! Maybe next year!

(This recipe was adapted from the blog Sweet Sugar Bean. I'm not good enough to come up with 100% original recipes quite yet.)

After the dinner, per my request, we took communion. I don't get to go to church anymore, and this is the one gaping hole I can't fill from home. I know that communion may be a strange way to end a birthday party, but it was my favorite part of the night. Remembering my Lord in that way at that time was an all important breath before taking the plunge that was the week to follow.

To be continued.....

Thoughts on Jubilee

Maintaining a state of jubilee has been harder than I had imagined. It is difficult to live in mental, emotional and spiritual freedom when the walls of my world are continually closing in. It isn't easy to not think of myself as a sick and struggling mother when that is my reality on most days. It is almost impossible not to fixate on my symptoms when they are constantly changing, surprising me and even sometimes making me laugh at the strangeness of it all. On the other hand, it is an effortless thing to allow my mind to wander to the things I would like to be doing that I cannot do, to my disappointment that I am not the mother I desire to be and to my growing realization that getting better is going to be far more complicated than loosely following a diet for a couple of years.

When I first began the GAPS diet last September, I envisioned a slow and steady journey toward healing. I saw myself getting better and better until--voila! While I rejoice to report that my digestive symptoms have improved significantly during the last 7 months, the ground has unexpectedly crumbled beneath my feet in other ways. My environmental sensitivities continue to worsen. In addition to toxins, fragrances and latex, I have become violently allergic to peanuts. I came very close to going into anaphylactic shock on Sunday evening after attempting to make peanut butter for Micah. I simply breathed in peanut particles released from the garbage can and within a few minutes my body temperature dropped, my sinuses swelled shut and I was struggling for breath. Now, peanuts are banned from the house indefinitely, and life has become even smaller. Weirder, too--I have ordered a good-quality cotton mask to wear in public as a safety precaution. If you ever need a giggle, just imagine the thoughts of my fellow grocery shoppers. On the bright side, a mask may make occasional church attendance possible again.

If the only opposition to my efforts to live in liberty were physical, it is possible that I would be having more success. But we are whole people whose bodies, souls and spirits are all intricately intertwined. When one part of our make up is assaulted, the other areas suffer. If our entire composition is assaulted at once, it is only by the grace of God we stand.....or at least get back up again.

Jenny received disheartening news at her last two doctor's appointments. I know she is going to hate reading this, which is why I feel it necessary to remind her that I love her as my own soul. I can't separate the two anymore so it is impossible for me not to take her hard news personally. (So there! You can't be mad at me.) A couple of weeks ago, she was told that the chemo was no longer working. The liver tumors were larger. The cancer in her esophagus had returned, and it had spread to her lungs and stomach lining. Experimental medicine was considered, but last week she was released from the trial because they had run out of the smaller sized pills and Jenny could not swallow the larger ones. I will not for a moment pretend that the difficulty of the past few weeks has nothing to do with her circumstances. Jenny continues to amaze me by her capabilities in spite of constant pain and a grim prognosis. As she often reminds me, she still has today and God will provide her with breath until He is ready to call her home. I'm just afraid He's going to call her before I am ready to let her go. I know it won't be a goodbye--rather more like a "Bon voyage!" and an "I'll be along soon"--but I tremble when I anticipate the pain I fear is coming.

I have been under considerable duress physically and emotionally, so it follows that I would be affected spiritually. And I have been. I have felt distant from the God I so need, the God I so depend upon for everything from what to put on my daily to-do list to the strength to pull it off. I haven't liked it. With no way to fix myself, I asked Him to fix me for me. I searched His Word for answers. I  prayed. I quieted my soul so I could hear Him. When He was ready, He spoke--

"Let go. Trust me. Give thanks."

The message came to me in no less than five books I was reading at the same time over the course of three days. It came to me in emails, in conversations.

"Let go. Trust me. Give thanks."

I heard it in a podcasted interview online. I saw it on Facebook. It was spoken in a sermon.

"Let go. Trust me. Give thanks."

After several days of being pummeled by these instructions, I received this helpful hint--

"P.S. It's all tied together."
It was during a conversation with Jenny that I realized what had happened and was able to verbalize it. "You know?" I said. "I think my problem is that I am suddenly doubting God's goodness."

Now, I know God is good. I have known that since I was three. I have memorized Scripture passages teaching the theology. The cross proves it. Without thinking, several examples of God's goodness to me in particular come to mind. The truth of God's goodness is a part of my spirit's bone structure, but my soul had lost touch with my spirit's conviction in the midst of the day to day struggle of being me. Because I had lost touch with this truth, I was suddenly trying to place the circumstances in my life in an order that made sense to me. It wasn't working. I was becoming frustrated, feeling overwhelmed and getting

I had to let go. I needed to trust God. I was called to give thanks. The three instructions are pretty interconnected. To let go, I have to trust. When I give thanks, it's easy to let go. When I'm trusting, I can clearly see God's goodness, and gratitude is a natural by-product of the process. But I couldn't start with letting go or trusting because I can't will myself to do either. However, I could will myself to give thanks. I didn't have to look far to find things for which to be thankful.

1) Jubilee Farm coming to life

 Thanks for the photo, Ann Marie!

2) Baking with babies

3) Sara's first egg hunt

4) Meeting Mr. Clarence, the precious man who provided me with goat's milk last summer when I could eat little else.  Mr. Clarence belonged to my Uncle David's congregation at Good Hope Baptist Church. He gave to me because he loves my uncle and our Lord.


5) The first planting and planting party at Jubilee Farm
 Our beautiful plants purchased from Yak's Farm on Hwy. 33

 Enjoying a tomato just a few minutes before getting stung by a wasp. Poor baby!

 Meet Rich who might as well already be a part of the family as Micah now asks for Auntie and Richie. :)

Only two and a half weeks after beginning my Gratitude List for 2013 (inspired by Ann Voskamp's book One Thousand Gifts) I have 45 gifts recorded in my journal. That's forty-five items that remind me that God is indeed very good and worthy of my trust. Forty-five items telling me I can let go.

Living in a state of jubilee is not pretending that life isn't hard or putting on a good face. Jubilee is saying, "God I trust You have our good at the center of Your plan" even when we can't make sense of things. It is looking at the world as a giant gift and life as a grand adventure. It is believing that life is still good even when it is painful. It is being able to say "thank you" when you are lying on a mattress only conscious enough to know that if you close your eyes for a moment you may wake up in Heaven. It is being able to pray as you are about to toss your cookies into the toilet. It is a peace that goes so deep that it doesn't matter if you never get well because healing isn't your real prize anyway. It is knowing that even if you lose a part of your soul, you'll get it back one day. Jubilee is Jesus, and that is something I always have and am never without.

Sometimes, Kismet Happens

"The soul of Jonathan was knit to the soul of David, and Jonathan loved him as his own soul." 1 Samuel 18:1

God is a God of relationship--among the Trinity, between Himself and humankind--so it makes sense that relationships between people would be a matter of import to Him, especially considering the fact that He designed we humans with a need to be in relationship with Him and others. I have been blessed with many deep and lasting relationships comprised of both family members and friends. Each relationship carries a unique flavor, enriching my life, giving it more complexity and depth. I recognize these relationships as gifts from the Lord, each one divinely ordained and valuable. I would not be the person I am today without them. These precious people have all become a part of me, and I would like to think that I have become a part of them.

When I allow someone in my life, I give my heart away. Therefore, I am never haphazard about my relationships. I take my time in selecting my friends. I observe. I study. And when I commit, I do so with long-term intent. I can't love without loving wholly. When a person loves like that, it is dangerous for her to enter into short-term relationships because she usually ends up hurt or broken--sometimes irreparably--which is why I wasn't much of a dater in high school. I have been hurt. I have been broken. I don't like pain, so the self-preservation instinct within has taught me to only invest in "safe" relationships.

 The problem with that way of thinking, of course, is that no relationship is safe because LOVE is not safe. Love--real love--is wild. Love is free. Love does not play by the rules. Love is exquisite, and love is painful. Love requires sacrifice. Love is the reason for the cross of Jesus Christ, after all, and nothing about the cross was safe. Safety in relationships is an illusion, but it is one that I have subconsciously believed. That belief is expressed in the fact that I rarely invest in people for the moment, and when I do, I don't share anything with them that I would miss. It costs me nothing to share a smile or a simple service, but God forbid I that bare my soul to anyone that won't be my friend for the next 30 years.

While this is normal behavior in our culture, I don't think it is Christ-centered behavior. Christ "poured out His soul unto death" (Isaiah 53:12). I'm fairly certain we are called to at least pour out our souls unto possible pain. The Lord began convicting my heart of its selfishness a few months ago, and put His work to the test on a Sunday morning in late August.

I was having a rough morning, but I needed to get out of the house, and wanted to attend church. I was not surprised or overly-dismayed when Sara began competing for attention with the speaker, prompting me to scoop her up and leave the auditorium. I decided that I would enjoy my daughter in the sunny foyer, and be happy to be out of the house.

And then, kismet happened.

A young mother with a baby born a few weeks after Sara stepped into the foyer, sat down across from me, and with a sweet grin, she cheerily stated, "I guess this is where the loud ones sit." I smiled, and replied with something forgettable.

Common ground could not be ignored as we sat across from one another with baby girls close to the same age. We small-talked. I noticed she offered a good bit of personal information about herself upon the first meeting. The information had a refreshingly honest quality about it. She crossed over, sitting beside me, commenting that she wanted to see me better as she was not wearing her glasses. I would never have been so forward with a stranger, but I was not threatened at all by her. I liked her and her honesty and her disregard for Ruston social protocol.

I allowed myself to notice things about her--the color of her eyes, the color of her child's eyes, the small freckles on her skin, the way her nose wrinkled when she laughed. And then kismet struck again.

My friend, Ellie, whom I hadn't seen in several weeks walked up, and engaged me in conversation. The girl returned to the couch across from me, allowing us to talk. Ellie asked about our progress in the move, and about my health. I answered honestly, not fretting over giving out personal information in the presence of a stranger. When Ellie walked away, the girl asked me straightforwardly about what I had said. I can't remember the exact wording of her question, but it was worded in such a way that I knew she was asking because she wanted to know. (Many people ask how a person is doing, but they don't really want to hear anything more complicated than a "fine." I mention that little tidbit without judgement because I have certainly been among that lot in the past.) I looked at her, gulping down my instinct to white-wash my suffering that I might prevent myself from treading on the minefield of soul-baring, and gave a synopsis of what I had been through in the previous four months.

As I talked, I measured the interest in her eyes so that I would know how much to tell. She stayed with me, so I did a pretty good job of telling enough without telling too much. When I was finished, I saw something strange in her posture which I now recognize as the weight of compassion. The observant eye will notice that when a person feels compassion for another, the shoulders sag, the head bows, the brow furrows, the lips purse, and the eyes squint as if the sufferer's pain was their own. Here's the thing about compassion--it is only bred through suffering of your own. So, when she launched into her own tale--a tale about how she found out three days after birthing the baby I saw in her arms that she had advanced cancer of the esophagus and liver and was in the hospital for a month after the birth of her baby girl rather than getting to go home and be that baby's mother--I wasn't shocked, only horrified.

After exchanging stories about our personal road trips to hell and back, we shared with one another how we managed to get through it. Our identical answers gave us more common ground upon which to stand. We agreed that only Jesus Christ and His love, mercy and grace could have provided the light needed to walk such dark, treacherous paths.

And then I did something I never do--I wept without reserve in the presence of a person whose name I did not yet know. And she wept with me. The tears shed were not only for our own pain, but for the pain of the other. We did not KNOW each other! I found an unexpected emotion in my heart as I heard the service closing inside the sanctuary. Love. I never love so easily, so freely, but I knew the events of that morning had nothing to do with my comfort zone or selfish tendencies. I had been seeking the Lord, so I was able to acknowledge that the two of us were being offered a gift, a gift that shouldn't have even been a possibility.

 I finally learned that her name was Jenny. Jenny was from Houston, and was at church with her in-laws because she and her husband were in town visiting. I learned that she almost did not go to church that morning because she was still feeling fatigued and unwell from recent chemotherapy, which had been very aggressive. We never would have met one another if our girls hadn't forced us out of the service. I never would have shared my story had Ellie not asked me about my health, leading Jenny to ask a direct question which brought forth a true and thorough response from me. As awful of a truth this is to reveal, I feel it should be said--left to myself, I never would have chosen a friend who was in the midst of a battle with cancer. I never would set myself up for that level of possible heartache. The friendly attraction I felt with her spirit was not a natural byproduct of my disposition. Clearly, something larger than either of us was at work, and had brought us together. I asked for her number, promising I would text her. I was taking a real risk because I didn't know if she would be as interested in friendship with me.

I texted her as we left the parking lot of the church that morning. Her response was quick, not giving me long to worry about whether or not I had freaked her out. And we have been blowing up each other's phones ever since. We have sent prayers, encouragement, and favorite Bible verses. We have shared several phone conversations, none of which manage to be long enough for our liking due to the nature of our lives. We have exchanged care packages containing favorite music and notes. And I have already been to her and her husband's home in Houston. I even let her cook for me, which is not something I allow anyone to do for me anymore. She didn't think me strange when I brought my own salt, and I was perfectly healthy when I left her home for our concert.

We've been friends for only 8 or 9 weeks now, but I'm fairly certain she would agree with me when I say that we love each other like sisters. As He did hundreds of years ago with Jonathan and David, the Lord has knit our souls together for a beautiful and very unique friendship. We would so like to be physically present for one another, but that is not what God had in mind when He planned our relationship. We are purposed to be spiritually present for one another. She cannot travel to my home, and care for me as she would wish. I could not attend her appointment last Tuesday as I would have liked. I would have if I could have so that I would have been there when they told her that her liver tumors had grown, that she now has Stage 4 liver cancer and that she would have to begin chemotherapy again this Monday. I couldn't be there any more than she can be here, but I can grieve with her, cry with her, pray with her, encourage her, route her on, rally her up, and help her to face this absolute monster of a thing currently blocking her passage to the life she would like to live. God gave us the gift of this friendship, so it is within His rights to shape it as He wishes. We will rest ourselves in His good design.

Jenny is precious to me. Will you please pray for her as she begins chemo on Monday? This stuff is ROUGH. She needs strength, hope, and faith to face the challenges ahead. She needs the cross to be the blazing center of her vision if she is to run this race with endurance. Will you pray for her husband, her soon-to-be five-year-old son, and her nine-month-old daughter? Will you pray that all of their needs are met according to the riches in Christ Jesus?

As I have requested prayer for Jenny from individuals, I have been asked more than once if I believe that Jenny will live. The answer is that I absolutely do. I believe that she is going to live as much as I believe that I'm going to live. I believe that it's going to be hard. The circumstances are very bleak. But I believe in the deepest recesses of my heart that the Lord is going to bring her through the cancer, and give her enough time to see her kids grow up. I am no optimist, nor am I naive. This isn't me employing the power of positive thinking, hoping that somehow I can twist God's arm into doing what I want Him to do. My belief that she is going to live is something else entirely. I have believed that she will live for several weeks now, but on Wednesday morning, the day after I heard her heartbreaking news, I was led to Psalm 118 where I found this verse--

"I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord."--verse 17

I read those words like a promise. For Jenny. For me. We are going to live through our dangers, and when they are over, we are going to throw huge parties. I am certain that I will attend her party and that she will attend mine. At those parties, we are going to lift high the name of Jesus Christ who is carrying us through our thorny paths! And after those parties, I plan to whisk her and our families away to The Island with my dear friends, the Dorey's, and spend a week in the closest place to Heaven I have visited on this earth, where we will stay up late eating good food, drinking Kurt Pendergrass's homemade vanilla lattes and talking about the healing power and awesome goodness of our God!

Just so you know, Jenny's attitude about all of this is reflected in something she said on the day that I met her--"I would love to be a healing story, a story that displays the Lord's healing power, but I know that not everyone gets that story. I have already gotten a miracle in being healed of my esophageal cancer. I may not get another. Either way, I trust Him."

Let us pray that her trust remains firm, and let us pray that she gets that second miracle.

S.O.S. Prayer Request ANSWERS

Long time, no post. After nearly a month of living at the new place, we were finally connected to the internet today. I had originally intended to write a bit over the past month in order to have several posts ready to go when we reached this point, but the past month has proven to be . . . . overwhelming, and that's a nice adjective to use. Before going into all of that, I would love to share how God has answered your prayers on our behalf.

1) My Cymbalta withdrawal symptoms passed a few days after writing the post requesting prayer, making the following week manageable, which was important because the night after posting the prayer requests, I had a severe allergic/chemical reaction to butter, which was the first blow of many that the final two weeks of September had to offer.

2) My pain went on somewhat of a reprieve the week before the move. After the move, my body went into post traumatic stress mode, but none of my pain has been impossible. With the exception of a couple of days, I have not been bound to a bed.Praise the Lord!

3) Hours after posting our prayer requests, I was contacted by three friends that I had not seen since HIGH SCHOOL, all offering their help. One friend came on Monday, another came on Tuesday, and another came on Thursday. Their presence in my home was very refreshing. My loneliness was cured, I had help packing boxes, my children had playmates and my spirits were lifted. God's ways are sooooo interesting. Who knew that help would come from people I haven't seen in nearly a decade? Ladies, if you are reading--catching up was very sweet for me. Thank you.

4) Sara has been SLEEPING!!!! Since my last post, Sara has slept through the night EVERY night. Miraculous! The night after the move, she didn't miss a beat. This is CLEARLY an act of the Lord on our . . . . especially my . . . . behalf.

5) Sara remains a demanding, fussy baby. Evenings are still rough, but the Lord has helped me to figure things out. As she becomes fussy and I become busy with dinner preparations, I simply put her in her bed, and close the door. Sometimes she wails. Oftentimes she sleeps. It's just how I have to cope at present, and it works.

6)  Brandon's stress level has not altered much. The stressors have simply changed. He continues to face pressures everywhere he turns, but he has been able to hunt a couple of times in the past week, which has helped. I am so thankful that the Lord sustains me enough to allow this. I'm even more thankful for a husband who cares enough to stay home when I need him. Please continue to pray for my man. We still have things to move from the old house. He has much work to do out here on the new property. He did not get the job promotion we believed he would get. His wife is sicker than ever. Our financial status is the most strained it has ever been. The man has A LOT on his mind.

7) God has chosen to relieve my loneliness, but not in the way I had in mind. As mentioned above, my health has taken a turn for the worse over the past month, requiring me to seek and receive much more help at home. There has been such a parade of fun helpers through here that every morning, Micah asks expectantly, "Who we gonna see today?" I have had friends, parents (in-laws included), aunts, and grandmothers show up day after day to help me with daily tasks and offer me a rest. Their presence has been a tremendous blessing. I'm incredibly thankful for them. But my Type-A personality resists receiving help. I find it a difficult thing. I realize that I have a problem, which is why the Lord had to very clearly impress upon my heart to receive help when it is offered.

8) I do believe that my photosensitivity is a thing of the past, meaning that it was a side-effect of the Cymbalta. I have not had an opportunity to sun-bathe for I have lacked the energy required to dress myself and the two children and venture outdoors with them for an extended period of time. I plan to put my theory to the test at my first opportunity and burst of energy.

9) Please pray that our house sells quickly. The medical expenses continue to compile. Selling the house would be very helpful. Until then, we will trust the Lord to be faithful to His word, supplying all of our needs in Christ Jesus. We have someone looking at the house this evening, and we would love her to love it enough to make a serious offer!

10) Get this--Micah's anxiety has DISAPPEARED. He has not had one INSTANT of anxiety in our new home. He has slept peacefully every night, including our first. He has hit a difficult stage, but he's THREE for goodness sake. And anxiety is not a part of the stage. Hallelujah! What a Savior! Feel free to shout with me!

11) I realize that I skipped this number, and only had 11 requests on the last post. Impaired mental function is a humbling part of my illness as I have always depended upon and valued my intelligence . . . . probably more than I should. Sooooo . . . . . our faith. Our faith has remained firm. It has remained firm because it HAS to. There have been moments that I've doubted my ability to handle my circumstances. There have been moments that I've doubted that I would live. But I have not for a moment doubted my God, and this is His gift to me--giving me the faith required to face the trial. Even in the instances when I've felt that He has forgotten me, I have known in the deepest recesses of my soul that He has not and cannot. I am treasured, and the cross of Christ is continually before me to remind me of how MUCH I am treasured. In the darkest moments, He has sent clear evidence that I continue on in His thoughts and work. I am looking forward to sharing some of those with you over the next few weeks as I try to catch you up on the details of our lives.

Thank you for reading. Thank you for praying. And for those of you who don't pray, thank you for helping us and wishing us well.

Sincerest love to EVERY one of you,

The Keasters

Everything Changed

Winter has settled in for its three month long stay. In Louisiana, that means that the temperatures will shift between comfortable and cold, the weathermen will falsely predict snow a half dozen times, and the locusts will fall silent until the arrival of spring in March. The trees have lost much or most of their brilliantly fall-hued foliage. Their bare arms are reaching for the sky in the hope they can catch the illusive sun, or flag it down, and convince it to stay another hour. As winter arrives, Christmas awaits just around the bend! I love this time of year for many reasons. I love the generosity that spreads around like the flu. I love gathering with my family over and over and over again--as long as we all manage to behave ourselves. I love the music, the lights, the parties and the food. This year has been especially enjoyable, and it has almost everything to do with Micah.

This year, I was able to watch Micah help his Daddy decorate the Christmas tree.I have enjoyed taking out Micah's nativity set almost every day. It thrills my heart to hear him call Mary, "Momma," Joseph, "Daddy," and the Baby, "Jesus."
I love the fact that Micah prances around the house wielding wrapping paper rolls like swords, ready to challenge anyone--man, woman or black and white spotted dog--to a duel. I have to warn you--he cheats. He always uses two, like Antonio Banderas in Zorro, as opposed to my one and Daisy's . . . . none. I enjoy hearing him quasi-sing "Jingle Bells" and trip over the lyrics of "Hallelujah." The boy loves some Handel, and who can blame him?

I love Christmas pictures made in Christmas outfits put on Christmas cards, which are then sent out to friends and family.

Most of all, I enjoy this time of year because it reminds me of the reason I hope for a better tomorrow. It reminds me of the vast lovingkindness and compassion of our Awesome Creator God who doesn't owe us a thing, yet is on a continual rescue mission on our behalf. It is for this reason that I would like to cordially invite you to the Christmas Eve service at Crossroads Church in Ruston, LA at 5 p.m. on December 24th. I helped plan the program and prepare the choir. I know that you will be blessed by the music, the fellowship and the worship of our Lord, Jesus Christ.

The Christmas Eve worship service at Crossroads is special to me because it is the service that drew me to Crossroads three years ago. The week of Christmas in 2007 was one of the worst weeks of my life. The events of that week left me reeling and broken for months. Had God not been especially good and gracious to me in the days, weeks and months that followed, I might not have darkened the door of a church of any kind ever again. That sounds dramatic, but it is no stretch to the truth. Three years ago, my good friend, Erica Kordsmeier, invited me to the Christmas Eve service, knowing that I would enjoy the music, but having no idea how God would use that event to change my life in ways that I couldn't have imagined in my wildest dreams.

My friend, Erica

Brandon and I sat in the back. I didn't know many people, which made me feel a little better about quietly crying through most of the service. I cried because my heart was broken. I cried because the music was beautiful. I cried because I could feel the love of the believers in the room. Most of all, I cried because in that gathering, I felt the presence of the Lord more strongly than I had felt it in years. In a room of strangers, my famished soul found nourishment. I lapped it up with the grace of a starving dog. I probably looked like I had attended a funeral when I left, but the time had acted like balm to my invisible wounds. Okay, okay, enough with the cliche metaphors.

The service didn't fix me--let's be clear; Jesus fixed me--but it made me hungry for more of the Spirit at Crossroads. It began a domino reaction which led to the following: More crying through services. Healing. Forgiveness. Church membership. Christian friends. Spiritual revival. Discipleship (I found two women to disciple me). Spiritual growth. Service. Discipleship (I began discipling others). Joy in the Lord! Helping to plan and prepare the Christmas Eve service in the hope that it will draw someone else to the greatest adventure of his/her life.

While at Crossroads, God has changed everything. In a time of hurt and rebellion, this service wooed me right into His hand. This God, the Highest Being of the universe, humbled Himself by coming into this world in the vulnerability of an infant's body. He did this to show that He is not only for the great in this world, but for the lowest of the low, the poorest of the poor--the group of which I consider myself a part. That God, was born to die so that we could have life in Him. I was dead without Him, and now I am alive! He brought me to life, healed my brokenness and replaced my tears with laughter. Every quest and desire for happiness is met in Him. I have seen many miracles in the past three years. Yes, many. But, one of the greatest miracles I have witnessed is how He has turned one of my greatest heartbreaks into the greatest good in my life. When I allow my heart to venture back into the hurt of three years ago, I can only smile. I remember my hurt as if through a haze. What I feel today is gratitude and joy. Only God does that, and He can do it for anyone.

Funny how something as simple as a single service . . . or the birth of a Baby changes everything.

Merry Christmas.

God Bless Monster Cookies and Other Fall Foods

There really is something about Fall. Even when the temperatures creep back up to summer highs, the heat seems gentler somehow. The air remains crisp and light, as it should. Gone is that oppressive heat that makes your body feel twice as heavy, at least. Something about that sudden lightness has put some pep in my step, and I did something I haven't done in awhile--I cooked every single day last week. (Except Tuesday. Brandon cooked on Tuesday.)

On Monday, we had one of Brandon's favorites--meatloaf and sweet potatoes. On Tuesday--oatmeal and ham. But I was just warming up. Wednesday was Red Lentil Soup (or Esau soup, as I prefer to call it) and Monster cookies. Thursday was chili/chili dogs/Frito pies, depending upon your pleasure. Friday was Creole jambalaya and Gumbo . . . sort of . . . and a gluten-free pumpkin bread experiment. (It's interesting which foods scream, "Fall!," to different individuals, isn't it?) If our menu was all I had to tell, I would have posted it on Facebook, and left it at that. However, God decided to bless our Fall menu, leaving His fingerprints all over it. As with everything He touches, something ordinary became beautiful, extraordinary.

The first day that cool breezes returned to the South, I wanted to eat 3 things: Red Lentil Soup, Jambalaya and Monster cookies. These three foods make me feel satisfied and warm on the inside, which is the way I like to feel when it's cool and breezy on the outside. On Saturday morning, I made my first grocery list of the week. (I went to the store 3 times last week.) The premiere item on the list? Fall colored M&Ms for the Monster cookies. We don't fight food cravings here at the Keaster household.

Some of you may be thinking, "What is a Monster cookie?" Others may wonder if I should be eating a cookie of any kind. Relax. These babies are made with peanut butter (peanuts aren't tree nuts; they're legumes), oatmeal (I can have this in small amounts), butter, sugar, brown sugar, baking soda, corn syrup, semi-sweet chocolate chips and M&Ms. No flour. (Yay!) Monster is my favorite cookie. M&Ms the colors of changing leaves make them Fall cookies.

At first, I was going to bake the cookies the day I bought the ingredients, but I was too tired after the trip to the grocery store. Then, the plan changed to Monday. Tuesday passed, and no Monster cookies had been made . . .

During my quiet time on Wednesday, I read a story out of the Bible study I'm doing by Priscilla Shirer. She writes about praying during a quiet time one morning, and hearing God tell her to call a friend because her friend needed her. She made the call, and it turned out that the friend needed her desperately. After my own time with the Lord that morning, I asked that He would help me to walk in His Spirit that day, even if I wasn't aware of it. That He would lead me like He led Priscilla on the day she called her friend. I went about my tasks, doing my best to be aware of God's presence. I spent quality time with Micah, enjoyed creation, and washed clothes, thanking God for a husband and son who needed me to wash their clothes. I decided I would bake the cookies that night, and that I would bring some to the people who had moved into the empty house next door.

The evening rolled around, and I was exhausted. I decided to wait on the cookies, but I knew I needed to get dinner going. I began cooking Red Lentil Soup, which, by the way, turned out orange, not red. I guess orange lentil soup is appropriate for the month of October.
Something unexpected happened as I chopped, stirred and simmered--my energy returned. I decided I would bake those cookies after all. Brandon came home, and entertained Micah. Dinner was ready about the time the first batch of cookies came out of the oven.

"Brandon?" I said. "Would you guys be okay if I ran over to the neighbors' with these cookies while they're warm? I won't be long."

"Sure," he shrugged.

On a whim, which is so very unlike me, I ran across the yard wearing my t-shirt and jeans, smelling of onions, with unkempt hair and no make-up on, carrying a batch of fall-colored cookies, piled high on a plastic plate, covered in foil. Not much of a presentation, really. I knocked on the door, and introduced myself. I found out that the couple is only a few years older than me. They have an eight year old daughter and another daughter who will be born in about a month. I exchanged phone numbers with the mom, who also stays at home, and told them to call if they needed anything. I said my farewells, and left. I was running Micah's bathwater not even 10 minutes later when the phone rings. It was the new neighbor.

I answered, "Hello?"

"Melissa? I'm sorry to bother you guys, but I just had to tell you that these are the best cookies I've ever eaten. I have been craving peanut butter chocolate chip cookies, and I was looking for some today in the store . . . "

For whatever reason, she had been unable to find them and buy them. And I had brought them right over. On the day she was craving them. When that wasn't the plan at all. And it still took me almost half an hour to realize what exactly had happened. Dude. God sees the cattle on a thousand hills, but cares when a pregnant woman is craving a peanut butter chocolate chip cookie. He answers prayers we never even thought to pray. He listens when one of His kids asks to be guided by His Spirit. You know, God didn't have to use me to bring her the cookies. She could have found some at the store or made some herself or someone else could have brought them over. But God used me, regardless of the fact that I wasn't even aware it was happening.

"for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for His good pleasure."--Philippians 2:13

God put the desire to make the cookies inside of me and gave me the energy to pull it off because it pleased Him that we two girls should meet, and she got her cookie she'd been craving at the same time. Is God good, or what? Now I have a friend, someone who makes this end of Bear Creek Road seem a little less lonely and a lot less vulnerable. Us stay at home moms can watch each others backs, and maybe even share the occasional pot of coffee and another batch Monster cookies. Cool, huh?

On Friday, I cooked all afternoon, preparing for the guests we would have over the next two weekends. I made large portions of gumbo and Creole jambalaya. Inspired by my favorite blog, I decided to make gluten-free pumpkin bread. I used a recipe and converted it into something that wouldn't kill me. I made an original gluten-free flour blend with brown rice flour, potato flour, potato starch, baking powder and coconut flour. Everything but the gumbo came out better than expected.
Gumbo that isn't gumbo, but soup, is kind of an epic fail in Louisiana.
Even in the northern part of the state.
It made an excellent soup, though.

Into the freezer the jambalaya went to store until this weekend.
Friends, a new boyfriend and a fiance are coming to dinner.

The pumpkin bread turned out pretty well. It tasted fabulous, too.
Especially served like this.

Anyway, the gumbo, the pumpkin bread, and the left-over Monster cookie dough joined forces to help us entertain some good friends last weekend. The Blackburns and Keasters have been special family friends for a year now. On Saturday, Brandon took Drew and Nelson hunting. Ellie, Audrey, Allison, Micah and I had a tea party with real china dishes. Later, we decorated a few pumpkins. We all gathered around our little dining table that night, and enjoyed gumbo (that wasn't actually gumbo) and one another's warm and lively company. We ate. We talked. We laughed. It was simple and wonderful at the same time. And we can't wait to do it again.
My only evidence of a tea party.

Micah's pumpkin

Allison's pumpkin

Audrey's pumpkin. She used an entire jumbo sized thing of glitter on her pumpkin.

Micah managed to get as much paint on himself as he did on the pumpkin.

Me: "Say 'cheese,' Micah!"
Micah: . . . . .

God bless good food.
God bless faux gumbo.
God bless good friends.
Gold bless new friends.
God bless glittered pumpkins.
God bless painted red heads.
God bless Monster cookies.

The Island

It's difficult to describe the parts of the world that hold a little more magic than the other parts. The magic is in the air. Of course, you can't see the magic. Air doesn't have a color of it's own, although it is perfectly capable of borrowing color from other sources, as you will later see. Some of you already think I'm talking crazy, but if you have been to one of these more magical places of the world, one of those places where you are certain God must have taken a little more time dreaming it up, then you know what I'm talking about. You also know what I'm talking about if you have read The Chronicles of Narnia: The Magician's Nephew by C.S. Lewis, but magic is another blog topic altogether.

I'm trying to describe the place I vacationed last weekend. Little Gasparilla Island is a tiny barrier island off the west coast of Florida (Tampa side). Here is an aerial photo:

Little Gasparilla is about a 15 minute boat ride from the mainland. It's long and skinny, and situated very closely to Gasparilla Island, its big sister. I can't speak for that big sister, but the little sister is enchanting.

We arrived on a hot, miserable Friday afternoon. Our Little Red cried the entire boat ride across the bay because he didn't care for the heat, the life jacket or the delayed nap. As soon as we docked, the crying stopped. (I say it was the magic.) We were greeted by a flock of fiddler crabs at the end of the pier, waving their hellos to my sleepy son. We loaded the golf cart with our luggage, and took the short walk to the beach house where we'd be staying. Even in the heat, I was already falling in love.

We took it slow that afternoon. Micah napped. The boys rested. I rested and explored a little. I discovered that you can hear the waves pounding the sand from the front porch of the little house.

I discovered that the front yard was home to a fair sized gopher turtle.

I discovered that the walk to the beach takes less than one minute, and that I had more fingers than beachmates on this island . . .

and that's including the birds.

The only sensible thing to do about meals on the island is to bring them to the island. My uber smart and experienced friends began meal planning back in June. They knew they'd be planning around a daddy with Crohn's Disease, a mommy with a ridiculous list of allergens, and a baby who can be a little tricky to nourish at times. Danielle and Ryan did a great job with planning as you can see . . .

Danielle's dad graciously took my husband and Ryan out into the bay to catch the dinner you see in the second picture. Brandon loved the fishing, and there is something fulfilling in bringing home the bacon, frying it up and feasting upon it, even if it's fish instead of bacon. That dinner was shared by us, Danielle and Ryan (our sweet friends who brought us out there), Danielle's family, their friends and their college Sunday school class. Sharing good food with old friends and new acquaintances you will be spending eternity with . . . well, that's fulfilling, too.
Other magical moments include:

Feasting upon mangoes grown on the island.
Spending a rainy day out on the screened in porch, alternately reading and napping, listening to the ocean and the pitter patter of raindrops hitting the roof and sand in the background of our dreams . . . taking in the briny scent of the island air . . . the cool breeze caressing our skin.

Watching a storm approach, yell, "Sike!" and then dance around us . . .

Shell hunting in between storm cells . . .

Observing Micah as he makes peace the with the sand that threatens his balance, and as he makes friends with it later . . .Staying up late to talk with friends, and rising to a lazy morning and a big breakfast . . . .

Kurt Pendergrass's amazing vanilla lattes made out of Puerto Rican coffee and goat milk (just for me!) . . .

Micah's long and peaceful naps . . .

The outdoor showers . . .

And finally, the most magical moments of all . . . gathering for the sunsets . . .

and the sunsets themselves . . .

I wrote a poem about those sunsets, but it doesn't do them justice. I'll share it with you, anyway--

There is a certain sense of serenity
at sunset on the beach.
Splendor in abundance
from sputtering sea foam to eternal sky;
blues and greys, gold in rays
spin purple, rose, scarlet, fire in the heavens.
Fire in the heavens should not be,
but clouds and sea sing it it back to me.
Lovely echoes, the final throes of day
giving way to new music.
And with a sigh,
that fiery sphere sinks like a stone
into its bed of sputtering sea foam,
conceding into afterglow.

-Melissa Keaster 8/13/10

When you finally leave a place this magical, you carry a little of that magic back home with you. As I sit here writing this, reflecting upon last weekend, my heart beats in rhythm with the waves, and my eyes pool with sea water. And if I close my eyes, the salty drops drip down my face, but I can see that final sunset, smell the island air, hear the ocean lulling me with its steady, "hush, hush, hush," and feel the warmth of knowing that heaven will somehow be better than this.